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Resolving apparent biblical ambiguities about spanking

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  • "...attacks on spanking are thinly disguised attacks on parental authority. If current trends continue, Christian parents may find themselves forced to choose between obeying the law of the land or the law of God. Who knew that parenting in the 21st century would require such courage?" R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. 1
  • " it resolved that the United Methodist Church encourages its members to adopt discipline methods that do not include corporal punishment of their children. And be it further resolved that the United Methodist Church encourages congregations to offer opportunities for dialogue and education on effective discipline of children." 2004 General Conference Resolution passed by a vote of 892 to 7. 2

Interpretation of biblical passages on corporal punishment:

The Bible contains seven passages which specifically recommend the use of physical pain to discipline children. Among the more vivid of these passages are some that recommend the use of a rod to beat children:

  • Prov 22:15: "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him."
  • Prov 23:13: "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."
  • Prov 23:14: "Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell (Shoel)."

A discussion of these and the remaining four passages is available elsewhere on this site.

Some conservatives Jews and Christians feel that the Bible requires parents to use corporal punishment. Spanking is not optional. Many feel that it is the only biblically approved way to discipline children.

However, there is a major theme that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), and other ancient Jewish and Christian documents. It is commonly called the "Golden Rule" -- to treat others as you would wish to be treated. One of Jesus' best known parables, that of the Good Samaritan, 3 illustrates that the Golden Rule is to include not only fellow believers but every human in the world.

Some Christian sources for the Golden Rule:

  • "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
  • "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31, King James Version.
  • "...and don't do what you hate...", Gospel of Thomas 6. The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

Some Jewish sources:

  • "...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.", Leviticus 19:18.
  • "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
  • "And what you hate, do not do to any one." Tobit 4:15 8

There are similar "Golden Rule" passages in all of the major religions of the world including the Bahá'í Faith, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Ancient Egyptian, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Jainism, Native American Spirituality, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism. Unitarian Universalism, Wicca, Youruba, Zoroastrianism, and probably others that we have missed. They are formally called "Ethics of Reciprocity." More details.

With the exception of masochists, most adults do not like to be paddled, spanked, flogged or whipped. The Golden Rule would seem to imply that adults should not hit their children and cause physical pain, because it is a behavior that they themselves would not wish to endure at the hands of others.

Thus, we are faced with an apparent conflict between:

  • The Golden Rule theme. which would seem to forbid all infliction of pain, and
  • Specific biblical passages, which command the infliction of pain.

Conservative Jews and Christians, in particular, believe that their scriptures are the word of God, and are inerrant -- without error. One corollary of this belief is that the sacred scriptures cannot contain internal conflicts. It must be consistent throughout. Many mainline and liberal Jews and Christians view the message of the Bible as containing a some material that was copied from nearby Pagan cultures, and other material that is not applicable to today's society.

Other conflicts on biblical interpretation:

Conflicts between a theme in the Bible and specific passages in the Bible has occurred frequently in recent Christian history. For example:

  • In the 19th century, many North American Christians quoted general themes in the Bible, including the Golden Rule, the need for justice, the importance of human dignity and freedom, etc. to argue that the owning of slaves was immoral. But other Christians quoted specific passages in the Bible which condoned, regulated and controlled slavery; they argued that no passage in the Bible condemned slavery as immoral. More details. The abolitionists eventually won, but it took some hard bargaining in Canada, and a war among the states in the U.S..
  • More recently, many Christians argued that women should have equal opportunities to men, and that power within families should be shared equally between the spouses. They quoted major themes running through the Bible, including:
    • The importance of justice in human relations.
    • The value of each human made in the image of God.
    • Jesus' treatment of women as equal to men, particularly in the Gospel of Luke.
    • Paul's behavior towards, and statements about women.  For example, in Galatians 3:28 -- generally regarded as the earliest writing in the Christian Scriptures, Paul wrote: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

    Other Christians argued from individual Bible passes that men and women are intended to have specific roles to play in the family and in the church. Later Epistles mention that women are excluded from specific religious functions. They are not to teach men; they are to remain silent in church, etc. They suggest that women should be excluded from ordination. They should be submissive to their husbands, and follow his leading. They regard the passage in Galatians as referring to spiritual equality; equality before God. It does not imply that women and men should have equal authority and power. More details

  • Some Christians argue in favor of equal rights for homosexuals, including same-sex marriage, referring to some of the same themes as have been used to support equal rights for women. They also argue on the basis of human sexuality research on the number, causes, normalcy, and morality of the three sexual orientations: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. Other Christians argue against equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, on the basis of six specific "clobber" passages in the Bible which condemn certain same-sex behaviors; some argue for the re-criminalization of homosexual behavior.

Resolution of the apparent conflict:

  • Position of many religious liberals and moderates: By arguing from general themes in the Bible, one can make a solid case against the use of corporal punishment on children. Treating other persons with the same respect as one would wish to be treated is not limited to a specific age range, sex, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, age, etc. It is a universal principle and applies equally to one's discipline of children. Since few adults would like to be beaten or spanked, children should not be treated in that way.

    Liberals and moderates simply ignore the instructions in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, just as they ignore commands to stone non-virgin brides to death, force women to marry their rapists, murder religious minorities, commit mass murder and genocide, and other behaviors which are considered profoundly immoral by today's moral standards. Those were rules for an earlier age that we must reject today.

    They also give great weight to studies into the use of corporal punishment which seem to indicate that a drastic reduction in adulthood criminal behavior, serious depression and drug addiction might be achieved by switching from spanking to other methods of child discipline. More details.

    One evidence of support for non-violent methods of child discipline among religious mainliners was seen in 2004 when the United Methodist Church overwhelmingly approved an anti-spanking resolution at their General Conference by a vote of 892 to 7.
  • Position of many religious conservatives: By arguing from specific passages in Proverbs and Hebrews, one can made a solid case that the use of corporal punishment is not only desirable but mandatory for believing Judeo-Christian parents. One method of resolving the apparent conflict between the Golden Rule theme and the instructions to use corporal punishment is to interpret the theme as the generally applicable rule which is mainly intended for other adults. Children are a special case; they require specific methods of discipline in order to civilize them and encourage them to develop internal discipline. So, it is acceptable -- perhaps mandatory -- for parents to spank their children when they misbehave.

    One evidence for the support of spanking among religious conservatives is a report by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the quotation near the top of this essay, he describes spanking as "the law of God." 2 Another are most of the 569 hits that search engine found for the search string: "Southern Baptist" spanking.

References used:

  1. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., "Should Spanking Be Banned? Parental Authority Under Assault," The Christian Post, 2004-JUN-23, at:
  2. Petition #41038, "Corporal Punishment by Parents and Caretakers," United Methodist Church, 2004, at:
  3. The Parable of the Good Samaritan appears in Luke 10:25-37.

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Copyright © 2005 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-FEB-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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